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More than one-third of people in suburban Atlanta who participated in a recent study tested positive for the virus that causes genital herpes.
Atlanta had the highest rate of infection of the six cities in the study and also was higher than the national average of about 25 percent.
Only 5 percent of the 915 Atlanta area patients in the study reported a history of the disease, which can cause painful genital sores. Many people who have the disease have no symptoms and are unaware of their infection.
Authors of the study --- which was presented earlier this week at a meeting of the International Society for Sexually Transmitted Diseases Research in Ottawa --- said it shows that patients in affluent suburbs are just as likely to contract the disease as lower-income patients.
"These findings help to break the stereotype that there are only certain types of people that have herpes," said Douglas Fleming, the study's lead author and an assistant professor at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, N.J.
The study may have an impact on doctors as well, he said.
"When you talk to private physicians, there's a tendency to think that isn't really true of their population," said Peter Leone, co-author of the study and an associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "If physicians don't believe that it's important for their patient population . . . they may not think of doing testing."
The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 million people are newly infected with the virus each year in the United States.
The study's authors used results from blood tests of patients at six unidentified, randomly selected primary care physician's offices in suburban Atlanta.
When those results were combined with those of more than 4,500 patients in the suburbs of Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas and Denver, the study's authors found that one in four patients tested positive for the disease.
Higher levels of education, income and marital status did not reduce the chances of having genital herpes, according to the study, which was sponsored by the GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical company.
The company has manufactured a herpes vaccine currently being tested.
"These practices were relatively suburban. The median income was $60,000. These were not poor primary care practices," Leone said. "Clinicians . . . actually do have a lot of individuals going through their practice with genital herpes."
Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution